I.V. Babu, true communist, probably the biggest admirer of The Telegraph and my friend, passed away last Friday. I thought it is my responsibility to let my colleagues know of Babu. Please do not mistake this as an obituary. I read two powerful and incisive blogs about Babu yesterday (One by senior editor NP Rajendran and the other by journalist Appukkuttan Vallikunnu). This does not even pretend to come anywhere near such tributes. Rather, these are my impressions about Babu, crystallised in less than a year.
I have largely written from memory and there could be several inaccuracies and mistakes. I apologise in advance. For the typos too. It is very long but I think every journalist owes a lot to discerning readers and observers (and editors) like Babu. Please do read in full. Thank you. Rajagopal
Last summer, in the middle of the general election, the afternoon lull before the regular newsroom madness was broken by a call from our reception. A group of visitors had come from Kerala and they wanted to me. With a bite of remorse, I realised that NP Rajendran, one of the most respected and scholarly editors in Kerala, had messaged me in the morning that a friend of his has reached Calcutta and may drop in at our office.
I felt guilty because Rajendran himself had a bitter experience at our reception a few months ago and he left without entering because his camera will not be allowed in and he could not left it behind unattended. I should have remembered that incident and left word at reception that a guest will be coming. But I had forgotten to do so.
Rajendran’s friend waited patiently and, after the security bureaucracy was over, the group came upstairs.
That’s how, with a disarming smile and a mischievous twinkle that would have been the calling card of only a journalist, I.V. Babu swept into our newsroom and my life.
Babu and friends were in Calcutta after touring UP to get a feel of the poll pulse. I usually am tongue-tied before strangers, especially at work where I do not like to be distracted. But that afternoon, I spoke for long with Babu and his friends and, this ks where all of you come in, i realised i am sitting in front of the greatest fan of The Telegraph.
I learnt that Babu knows the paper better than many journalists in our paper. He knows we do not capitalise governor but does so with the President and PM. He knows we do not say opined. He knows we do not say In a major development.... I sat there spellbound, here’s a Malayali who can reel off almost all the headlines to which we had devoted considerable thought and time.
Babu reads our paper around 6am and looks up the epaper as soon as it uploaded. He then uploads it on his Facebook page (only those that meets his approval) and counts the likes and responds to the comments. Not that he is a blind devotee. He told me several shortcomings of the paper, which more or less matched my assessment. When it was time for them to leave, I realised again with guilt that i had not offered a cup of tea to Babu and friends. Something told me I need to see them off and I walked up till the lift with them. It did not strike me then but later that night, when I was leaving the newsroom around 3am, i realised that i had felt the same sadness when i was walking with Babu and others in the afternoon. Like I always prepare myself, tonight is the final edition and I may never see that corridor again. In hindsight, I had the same premonition about the walk with Babu.
From next week onwards, Babu and I would message each other almost everyday. Babu would send me his paper, Thalsamayam (here and now), on WhatsApp around 2.30pm. Every single day. I learnt that he is deputy editor there, he is the son of a communist famous in north Kerala, the son had ideological differences with his father, Babu counted highly admired and respected CPM dissident, the late MN Vijayan, as his mentor, Babu was thrown out of CPM for standing by MN Vijayan who himself was expelled for opposing the “fourth world” theory. Because Babu worked for an afternoon paper, he will be on the train before daybreak to start work and because of my schedule, i never go to bed before daybreak. It was a perfect digital junction: we communicated a lot. I learned he was two years older to me, he has a doctorate but he insisted that I call him by his name. He liked most of the movies I liked, he liked most authors i liked although the depth and breadth of his reading was by far intense than mine.
He took the trouble of travelling long-distance to meet me when my niece got married a few months ago. Again, i could not be good host because of my aversion to rituals and a general sense of alienation when with relatives i had lost touch long ago. I think Babu figured it out.
In between, I was caught in a spat with a minister. Many friends supported me, some counselled caution while some were not aware of the episode. Babu did something no one else had done: he wrote an editorial on September 24, 2019, in his paper, unequivocally condemning the minister, explaining the politics behind it and declaring that “Rajagopal is the latest to tread the path paved by Shankar, Abu Abraham, V.P. Ramachandran...”, some of thr greatest names among Malayali journalists who ridiculed those in power. “We should be proud as Malayalis,” the editorial added.
Embarrassed (to be named in an editorial is the rarest of rare honour any journalist can get, especially if it is non-posthumous), I chided Babu who replied: “Time and circumstances confer certain roles on us. We take it up without hubris. That’s the truth. You deserve it. That’s all.” With such finality, I did accept it with deep gratitude and shared it with only very few people, lest it go to my head, although the walk in the corridor every night would have been an effective reminder of how ephemeral such roles are.
On December 20, I was in Calicut, Babu’s hometown, to take part in a meeting called by the youth wing of the Muslim League. It was my first visit there. Babu reached the hotel at 8am and we spend the whole day together. He spoke about his two young children. He took me to Topform, a traditional seafood restaurant because he insisted that i cannot leave without enjoying the bounty of the Arabian Sea. He got me interviewed by Dool News, the most popular news portal in Kerala, he introduced me to many people, including Muhammed Suhail, the wonderful and daring brain behind Dool News. Alerted by Babu, Rajendran, because of whom I met Babu, came to to the hotel to meet me. Again, I was embarrassed. I should have gone to meet Rajendran, not the other way round. Babu wanted to take me home but the time the event got over, it was late and I had to leave for airport at 4am. Babu and Suhail came to my room at Al Hind Hotel and we talked till 2.15am. Babu told us a lot of newsroom stories and Suhail, the managing editor of Dool News, offered a lot of insight about political Islam. It was one of the most enriching nights of my life.
Suhail’s office was nearby. I asked Babu to stay with me and leave in the morning since official checkout was at noon. But Babu, with a legion of friends, had already made arrangements with a friend. On the pretext of going to ATM, I saw off Babu and Suhail on the road. Babu wanted to take a picture and we settled for an amateurish selfie.
At the airport, around 5.30, Babu messaged whether i had made it on time. He was worried because of my unfamiliarity with Calicut.
In Calcutta, we continued our exchanges. On short notice, I went to Kerala again for a seminar but returned overnight and wrote a story about stumbling upon an exhibition about the social upheaval in Kerala in the 20th century. Babu said he felt like killing me out of jealousy for spinning a story out of thin air but added that he had several differences with me on the issue. Knowing his deep knowledge (his PhD thesis was on a related subject), I was looking forward to what would have been his merciless post-mortem.
Between January 1 and January 7, we could not converse. On January 8, Babu messaged me that he had resigned. I called him and we spoke for a long time. He had not told his family. He defended a group of youngsters who had taken leave that was not sanctioned. His sense of fair play, which made him antagonise the party he loved and grew up with, was back in play. One thing led to another, bottled-up issues exploded and he left the paper where he was reassuring presence.
He said he will write a book, whose outline was clear in his mind, and then try for a job in another paper. He sounded confident and he was happy that I called.
A few days later, Babu asked me to attend a seminar in Kochi. I was reluctant because i never wanted to be an activist. But Babu reminded me of our roles when the country is going through a crisis. “If you can give hope to some people, even one person, what is your problem? They are not coming to hear you, they are coming to see that you have come and stood with them.” He had told me the same thing when I took his advice on attending the Muslim League programme. We must stand with the secular League, he insisted and I did so. I am glad that I did. But on the Kochi meeting, I did not commit and wanted to check the availability of my colleagues in office.
On January 13, Babu messaged me. “At Baby Hospital in Calicut. Jaundice.”
I enquired when I can call him. “Always,” he replied.
I got caught up in work and never made that call. On January 14, Babu sent me the epaper.
On January 16, i could call because I had a morning meeting in office. On the road, I called and started speaking as soon as that connection kicked in. From the other side: “This is not Babu.”
It was Vaisakh, his cousin. He needn’t say anything. Thirty years of staying away from home prepares you to figure out what some calls mean.
Vaisakh told me Babu was shifted to ICU the night before. Liver failure. If he pulls through, he will need a transplant.
I did not know what to say. Thirty years do not prepare you for everything.
In panic, i looked for Suhail’s number and realised I did not have it. I went to his web site and left a message. Then I called Rajendran. He had met Babu in the hospital the day before by pure chance. Babu could meet the person he respected most after the passing of MN Vijayan.
By then, Suhail had sent his number. The news was not good. Doctors are fearing multiple organ failures anytime.
I spoke to Vaisakh in the evening. Not much hope.
The next day, Friday, January 17, something jolted me awake around 9.50am. I had two missed calls at 9.23am and 9.24am. The first was from Rajendran. The second from Suhail.
I didn’t need to take the calls.